Retro Review: Casino Royale (1967)

When many people in younger generations hear that 2006’s outstanding Bond film Casino Royale was in some fashion a remake, they probably assume one of the earlier Bond films went by the same title. But strictly speaking, they’re incorrect. The 1967 Casino Royale was able to use the James Bond name and concept due to the fact that producer Charles K. Feldman owned the film rights to Ian Flemming’s first Bond novel. However, Feldman didn’t have a deal with the studio producing Bond films and was forced to make his own on the side.

Whether it’s because of this strange scenario or because he planned to all along, Feldman decided to make Casino Royale as a parody of the Bond concept. One look at the film’s trailer will show you that it’s just as ridiculous, for its time, as the more modern parody Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery and its sequels. This was a spoof in every sense of the word, operating on the idea of Bond having multiple agents impersonating him, so that there would be several people by the name of James Bond running about the Casino Royale.

The plot of the film goes, essentially, like this: the original 007 is lured out of retirement to deal with an organisation called SMERSH and in the process, M dies and Bond is promoted to head of MI-6. He then learns that SMERSH is after his life, as well as that MI-6 agents are dying off because they can’t resist sexual seduction. Naturally, he takes action: he changes all agents’ names to James Bond (to protect himself), trains them against seduction, and begins training at baccarat so that he can take down SMERSH agent Le Chiffre in a casino (as Le Chiffre has run afoul of his own organisation financially and desperately needs to win money). That last bit closely resembles the plot of the 2006 Casino Royale, but in the 1967 version it merely sets the stage for the rest of the film, which is a hodgepodge of strange, multi-Bond-infused shenanigans.

Again, it’s more worthwhile to compare this film to Austin Powers than the 2006 Casino Royale, and one reviewer for Common Sense Media did just that, calling it a “silly 007 spoof tamer than Austin Powers.” But it’s worth noting that it does share several details with the later film of the same name. Most importantly, both include the idea of Bond using casino games to exploit the weakness and vulnerability of an agent named Le Chiffre. Additionally, both films include a woman named Vesper Lynd, though she’s quite different in the two portrayals, with the name really being the only lasting connection.

Where the two Bond films differ most significantly, aside form the overall tone and the fact that one is a spoof, is in their handling of the casino setting. In 2006’s Casino Royale, the gambling scenes are handled with professionalism and a certain depth, catering to an audience that understands the game of poker. Millions of amateurs play this game online and with one another, and even for those without a keen understanding, there are teaching tools at the ready. The Betfair poker platform—one of the most popular ones operating online in the UK—has a handy how-to guide that can not only teach the game, but help one to understand that there are actually some legitimate gambling intricacies at play in Casino Royale. In the 1967 version, instead of offering a mature and genuine take on the subject matter at hand, the film treated its casino setting almost like something of a fun house. It’s basically a wacky se
tup for strange, satirical adventures. The aforementioned trailer even shows off one of the scenes in which there’s a revolving door hidden in a wall! In this sense, the two films couldn’t differ more severely.

In the end, this is an interesting film to view with a generation of perspective. The fact is, humour changes over time, and what may have been funny then now seems odd, forced, and almost lazy. At moments, the 1967 film appears to be a clever idea and a satisfyingly dry parody, but then it reverts to repetitive silliness that keeps it from being altogether good. Time Out London may have summed it up best, calling it “even less amusing than the more ‘serious’ Bond films.” The point, there, was that Bond has always been tongue-in-cheek, and with the franchise already aware of its own humour, a parody that isn’t downright hilarious isn’t much use.

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